This is a story I wrote on April 8th, 2008, and updated on April 8th, 2013.
Forty-five years ago, on April 8, in the small town of Ojai, I gave birth to a beautiful, healthy baby boy.
It was 1968. I was eighteen years old and totally naive.
Like a good number of teenage girls, I didn’t realize I was pregnant till I was in the last trimester. For several months I had been aware that I was gaining weight around my middle. I could no longer zip up my jeans. I did all kinds of diets, cleansing, and fasting techniques to try to lose weight. I took longer and longer walks. One day I even tried walking all the way back to Ojai from Ventura, via the Avenue. All to no avail. In case there’s any doubt in anyone’s mind just how naive young girls can be, I swear on a stack of bibles that it never entered my mind that there was a baby growing inside of me.
When I was about six or seven months along my childhood girlfriends started pointing out that I looked pregnant. I took the bus to a clinic in Ventura, and, sure enough, a nurse confirmed their suspicions. That afternoon I threw up the sardines I’d for lunch. I must have gathered up all my courage and shared the news with my mother. It did not go well. She told me that I had to tell my father. That was the most dreaded, awful, scary moment of my life. I cried for weeks afterward.
There were no childbirth classes in Ojai that I knew of, so to educate myself I went to Bart’s Books and found a copy of Childbirth Without Fear by Grantly Dick-Read, one of the fathers of natural childbirth. This book explained how fear and ignorance play a big part in the pain of labor. As luck would have it, a friend of my parents gave me a very unusual book entitled Come Gently Sweet Lucina, by a woman who had her babies all alone, unassisted, in her own bed. I read that book several times. The whole idea of a baby painlessly slipping out was very appealing!
There were no midwives in Ojai, at least none that I knew of. I had never actually seen a baby born, not even on film. But in Holland, where I was born, natural childbirth is the accepted form of delivery. My Indonesian father had delivered my youngest sister at home, and it was natural for me to think that I, too, would simply have my baby at home. I had grown up hearing stories about women in Indonesia who gave birth squatting in the rice fields when there wasn’t enough time to walk home. In my teenage mind, the only thing I really worried about was how to cut the cord.
The other thing about my teenage mind was that I only thought about the birth. I did not think beyond the birth—about things like diapers, baby clothes, a baby bath, or how I was going to take care of another being. My young mind didn’t think that far ahead.
It was a beautiful spring day and I was nine months pregnant, due in about a week. I was happy and relatively carefree. I was used to riding my bicycle everywhere, and I cycled over to the doctor’s office for a checkup. As I was lying on the examination table, he poked a gloved hand into my body. After feeling around inside me, he mumbled something about “stretching the cervix” just to help the baby along, because, he explained, “I have to go out of town.”
Wait a minute, I thought to myself, this does not seem right!
I managed to scoot off the table. I recall my heart beating fast and my face getting flushed with anger and indignation. How could this doctor whom I scarcely knew have the gall to cause my baby to be born early for his own stupid convenience? I didn’t even want him around, anyway! I didn’t like him and didn’t think he appreciated “I know what’s best for me”attitude.
As I write this today I applaud that young girl who had the good sense to tell the doctor that she wanted “a natural birth—no drugs, no forceps.” I left the doctor’s office and rode my bicycle home.
When I got home I noticed some discharge in my underwear. It is only now as I sit here retyping this story that I realize the doctor messed with my mucus plug.
That evening I went into labor, but I didn’t know it was labor. I felt a lot of pressure and thought I was constipated.
All those years in school, all those hours of homework, all that studying to make A-pluses and stay on the honor roll—and in all that time no one taught me anything about the sacred rites of passage in a woman’s life. No one told me how the patriarchal system had made this holy transit into a medical event. Fortunately, my natural instincts were still intact.
At around 11 p.m. the contractions began to hit in earnest. I was totally unprepared. I forgot everything I’d read. There was no one to coach me, no women friends or midwives gathered around. My mother came over. I panicked and agreed to go to the Ojai hospital.
At midnight I found myself alone on a high bed in the hospital labor room, my mother sitting in a chair nearby. The doctor periodically poked his head in the door to offer “a little something to help you relax.” I must have glared daggers at him, because he didn’t dare to come near me!
Every once in a while a nurse took a peek inside my body to check how things were progressing. She offered no words of support.
Soon I was flat on my back on the delivery table, feet placed in stirrups, shaved, prepped, and ready for the doctor to “deliver” the baby—-a crazy notion if there ever was one!
And suddenly there was the baby, crying, “Waaa . . . waaa . . . ” My own seven- pound- three- ounce baby boy! Of course he was crying—you would cry, too, if you suddenly emerged from darkness into bright light and were dangled upside down by some giant stranger in a white coat!
I’m not even sure if I got to hold him for a few seconds on the delivery table. I do know that very soon the baby disappeared into the nursery. As I was helped off the table and into the “recovery room” I heard the doctor say to the nurse, “She had it without anything, all right!” All along he hadn’t believed I could do this without anesthesia!
The baby had arrived at 2 a.m. I was wide awake, ravenously hungry, and ready to go home. And I wanted my baby! Instead, I was ushered to bed with a glass of water and a sleeping pill. I was outraged! I wanted to get the hell out of there! But there was a problem I had not anticipated. The doctor had performed an episiotomy. I hadn’t realized that was part of the deal, and now I had stitches that burned when I peed.
I threw the sleeping pill in the trash. All that work and no baby! I was too excited to sleep. I heard the other women in the room talking. Our beds were separated by curtains, so I could hear one of them moaning. They had all received a spinal block, and I got the impression that some of them had been in the hospital for several days. Something in me cringed when I realized that they all were bottle-feeding their babies.
I later learned that I was one of the lucky ones; millions of other women were not so fortunate. In her memoir, My Life So Far, Jane Fonda describes how the doctor put a gas mask over her face without asking, even though he knew she wanted to be conscious for the birth. He was wearing jodhpurs in readiness to go fox hunting when he was called to the hospital. That impatient doctor tore her up with forceps. At least I was conscious and was “allowed” to push the baby out on my own.
There is a whole generation of women now in their 60s , 70s and older who feel they missed out by being knocked out for childbirth. They’re still talking about it! A few months ago, when I told my yoga class about my niece’s natural, gentle birth, the older women in the class started talking about how they wished they could have been awake when their babies were born.
By 6 a.m. I’d had enough of being a hospital prisoner. There was nothing to eat in that place, and by now I was beyond ravenous—-but not hungry enough to eat canned peaches and white toast. The nurse promised that the doctor would check me when he made the rounds, and he would probably “let me go home.”
I had to go pee. When I came back to the room, I found out that the doctor had made the rounds and passed me by. When the nurse saw my crestfallen face, she tried to console me. “He’ll be back tomorrow morning.”
“Tomorrow morning!” I yelled. “I’m going home now, with or without the baby!”
Suddenly it all hit me. Somewhere in the nursery my baby was crying. What was I doing here? I started walking down the hallway. “I’m going home! Give me my baby.”
All at once everyone sprang into action. I was given papers to sign. Like magic, a wheelchair appeared and the nurse told me to sit in it so she could push me down the hallway. My parents were called to come pick me up. Someone put the baby in my arms. They wheeled me right up to the car and helped me into the back seat, along with a case of baby formula.
I put my as-yet-unnamed baby boy to my breast, and there he stayed for three years . . .